AUGUSTA, Maine — About 2,700 Mainers will get notices from the state Department of Labor next week that their unemployment benefits are ending because Congress failed to pass an extension before taking a week off over the Memorial Day holiday.
“We have to send them out,” said Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman. “We are required to inform recipients when their benefits are going to run out.”
She said about 1,000 more Mainers a week will exhaust their benefits unless Congress passes the extension.
She said Mainers who get extended benefits will be sent notices, as will those exhausting their regular 26 weeks of state unemployment benefits. She said there are four different categories of extended benefits because of different programs Congress passed during the recession.
“We hope that Congress will act,” Fortman said. “I think most people understand that unemployment insurance is one of those programs that not only helps individuals, it helps stabilize those communities that people live in.”
Fortman said labor department statistics show there are approximately 58,000 unemployed people in Maine.
The state pays out more than $9 million a week in unemployment benefits from both state and federal funding sources to more than half of the unemployed population. There were 33,722 claims of all types for the week ending May 14, which are the most recent figures available from the Maine Department of Labor.
Fortman said studies have shown those dollars are used to pay bills and feed families and have a significant impact on the economy.
“Congress should have acted,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat. “People need these benefits. We should stop looking at this a month at a time because this economic downturn is not over and people need help.”
Michaud said Congress should pass an extension by itself without adding all sorts of non-emergency items such as aid for catfish and poultry farmers, cottonseed farmer assistance, and the funding for a sugar cane cooperative in Hawaii.
“Using the plight of the jobless as a way to lard up bills for pet issues represents the worst of the political process and is the height of irresponsibility,” he said.
Michaud said he also is upset that at the last moment, House leaders removed a provision extending enhanced Medicaid funding for the states for another six months. It would have provided an estimated $85 million for Maine. It is unclear when it will be considered by Congress.
Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree said the House passed its version Friday and the Senate should have stayed in session until an agreement between the two could be worked out.
“People look at all of Congress as a whole,” she said. “I have to say on some of these issues I have learned to say please go call your senators.”
Pingree said she supported the bill, even though it did not have provisions she wanted such as an extension of the COBRA provisions to help workers continue their health insurance after they lose their jobs.
“I am disappointed that the Senate has not acted, and I hope when they return they will quickly act on an extension of benefits,” she said. “There are a lot of people in our state that depend on this help.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday evening there would be no votes in the Senate until June 7, even though the Senate met on Friday. That angered both Maine senators. Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe said that with the national unemployment rate near 10 percent, there is no question Congress should extend benefits.
“Rather than taking the time to resolve this vital issue and ensure that jobless workers have access to an interim lifeline, Congress regrettably adjourned for the Memorial Day recess,” she said. “I intend to press for immediate consideration of retroactive [unemployment insurance] extension legislation as soon as the Senate re-convenes in early June.”
Republican Sen. Susan Collins said unemployment benefits should be extended, but the benefits also should be paid for. The House measure pays for the benefits by ending the tax breaks corporations have for shipping jobs overseas. It also increases the taxes on hedge fund managers and private equity firms.
“I am hopeful that when the Senate reconvenes, we will be able to work together to provide assistance to those who are struggling and who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” she said. “But it is important that we do so without adding to our already bloated deficit, so I will continue working with my colleagues to identify ways to pay for this extension.”